Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years"

Disclosure: The reviewer serves on the Board of Directors of The Cloverdale Playhouse.

Oral histories -- especially of people from humble origins who had instilled in them a high regard for family, hard work, and moral values -- often are told repeatedly and with such simplicity as to obscure the profound ideas at their core.

And so it is in Having Our Say: the Delany Sisters' First 100 Years that is currently playing at The Cloverdale Playhouse. Adapted from the 1993 book by Sarah L. (Sadie) and A. Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany with Amy Hill Hearth, the play is deceptively simple: Sadie [Yvette Jones-Smedley], the elder sister at 103 years of age, and the 101 year old Bessie [Cynthia Harris], invite us the audience into their home as they prepare a birthday dinner in honor of the father they admired, and regale us with memories and stories that show their achievements that "contradict the false stereotypes which fuel much of the prejudice against African Americans".

The descendants of slaves, but "brought up to 'reach high'", each earned academic degrees through sacrifice and tenacity: Sadie became a respected teacher and Bessie a highly regarded dentist. They never married, and lived together all their lives, becoming so close that they often complete one another's sentences while retaining individual personalities. They balance one another. Sadie is a self described "Mama's child", while Bessie is more independent; Sadie is shy, while Bessie is outspoken; Sadie is the molasses and Bessie the vinegar in their complimentary roles.

They participated in and survived the most important events in recent American history, from early Jim Crow laws, through seeing Haley's Comet twice, to two World Wars and Korea and Vietnam, to the Harlem Renaissance and Negro activism in the 1920s, to advocating for women's right to vote, to the beginnings of the NAACP, to the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, and into the 1990s. In short, their history is our history, though unlike most of us, they knew so many of the leaders of the last 100 years: Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robeson, and Eleanor Roosevelt are among the many dignitaries we see through their eyes.

And what eyes they are. As centenarians, they assume some prerogatives of old age: speaking their minds without fear of recriminations. At their age "everyone we know is either dead or they're boring us to death", and they know full well that "oppressed people have a sense of humor". Whether they chase away the "rebby boys" who antagonize them, or consider the list of hurtful words that dehumanize them ["auntie", "boy", "coon", "jigaboo", "pickaninny", and the n-word] -- but don't call them "African American" or "Black" when "Negro" or "colored" or just plain "American" are more to their liking -- or proclaim the value of healthy food, regular Yoga exercise, listening to the Macneil/Lehrer Newshour, and prayer, Ms. Jones-Smedley and Ms. Harris are as warm and comfortable in their characterizations they they become everyone's great-grandmothers: the ones we come to for instruction, for solace, for wisdom.

Directed by Georgette Norman with a sensitivity to the complexities of the Delany sisters' lives, the play's two acts engage audience attention and connection to these two iconic women. Audiences go away refreshed and challenged to consider their own participation in the world around them, and to face up to the important issues of the 21st Century.